As the earth warms, all people will suffer the harms caused by climate change. But the impacts will not fall equally. Women are disproportionately suffering the burdens and impacts of climate change, according to the scientific consensus which has emerged in the last fifteen years. In recognition of this fact, in 2019 the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) adopted a Gender Action Plan, enshrining the principles of gender equity and equality in global climate agreements.
Unfortunately, this key international equity-enhancing protocol has yet to reach California. While California has made substantial progress in integrating racial and economic equity in climate research and policy, an awareness of how women are differently and disproportionately affected by climate change and a commitment to gender-inclusive climate action—perspectives which are common in global climate governance and with most of our peer nations—are largely absent from state and national climate considerations.
“The Promise of Gender Inclusive Climate Action” is intended as an introduction to the current global research and frameworks on climate and gender. It features our original demographic analysis, showing how the geographic distribution of women across California’s climate regions could affect their exposure to climate change impacts. We review the extensive academic and institutional research on the gendered dimensions of climate change on women and provide examples of model policies and planning frameworks to integrate gender considerations within climate action. The report concludes with recommendations on ways to advance gender equity in climate action in the California context. While California is the focus herein, many of our methods, findings, and recommendations are applicable to climate research and policymaking elsewhere in the United States.
Climate change exacerbates all forms of inequality, and inequality between men and women remains one of the fundamental social divides globally, in the U.S., and in California. Two principal dynamics are at the root of women’s greater exposure, sensitivity, and vulnerability to climate change, no matter where they live: 1) economic inequality and 2) women’s disproportionate responsibility for caregiving and domestic labor.
One, on average, women earn lower wages, possess less wealth and savings, and are employed in lower-paying occupations than men. Women are more likely than men to be poor. They are underrepresented in high-paid management and leadership roles and have less access to capital for business formation. The jobs most likely to be created by public investment to advance the transition to clean energy and a green economy—such as in infrastructure, construction, energy and water systems, and public safety—are ones in which women are grossly underrepresented. For example, only 32% of renewable energy jobs in the U.S. are held by women.
Two, women do a disproportionate share of caregiving and domestic work in the home. And, as importantly, women make up the overwhelming majority of paid caregivers and domestic workers. The gender gap in care, also known as the care burden, often reinforces women’s economic disadvantages; taking care of children, older parents, or ill or disabled relatives leaves women with less time for paid work. The COVID-19 pandemic, which saw a plunge in women’s labor force participation, illustrated that when emergencies strike, women are the ones most likely to forego paid work to handle the increased burden of care.
In sum, gendered economic inequality and caregiving disparities amplify women’s sensitivity and vulnerability to the impacts of climate change and reduce their adaptive capacity. Racial and gender inequality intersect, resulting in greater vulnerability for women of color.
The research is clear, as we document in section 4. Women make up a sizable majority of the elderly, the population most sensitive to climate impacts. Women are more likely to struggle economically to pay energy bills and more likely to live in homes with poor energy efficiency. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence during climate-driven disasters like wildfires and floods. Numerous studies have documented worse maternal and neonatal health outcomes associated with climate-driven droughts, heat waves, floods, and vector-borne disease. As crucially, women are less likely to be included in the benefits of climate action, whether through investments or job creation.
California is a global leader on climate action and is uniquely poised to model innovations in the U.S. on climate and gender. Under the administration of Governor Gavin Newsom, California has already achieved success on one of the UNFCCC’s priority areas, the equal participation and leadership of women in climate decision-making. Applying a gender lens to climate change assessments and setting gender equity goals are well aligned with the state’s expressed principles of climate action and can be incorporated relatively seamlessly into many of California’s action plans and policies. In California, there is supermajority public support, particularly among women, for bold climate action.
How California innovates to tackle the climate crisis is widely influential in the U.S. and abroad. Making a commitment to advance gender equality while addressing climate change could unlock enormous untapped opportunities for the California economy and the well-being of Californians. Promoting gender equity within climate action and guaranteeing that women can participate fully in building a climate ready economy has the potential to be a force multiplier for meeting California’s ambitious climate goals.